Bulgarian Cucumber and Yogurt
Soup with Walnuts
In the U.S., when one speaks of “gourds,” the thing that seems to come most readily to mind is something inedible that shows up in centerpieces around Thanksgiving time. But the gourd family is large and varied, and it includes a number of very edible members, including melons, squash, and cucumbers.
Cucumbers are among the world’s oldest cultivated vegetables. Archaeologists have found evidence of cucumbers growing around human dwellings dating to 7750 BC—and that places cucumbers pretty close to the dawning millennia of agriculture—at least until the next big dig finds something earlier, as seems to be the case these days, with increased interest in and research of early foodways. But at present, it looks like we’ve been intentionally growing cucumbers for nearly 10,000 years.
Those earliest signs of cultivation were discovered near the Thailand-Burma border. This seems a likely general area for point of origin, though the cucumber had traveled far and wide by the time we have written confirmation of its popularity. By 1000 BC, we find it popping up in India (where, depending on who you believe, may be where cucumbers were first pickled, though that depends on how you define pickle, which is trickier than it seems). Cucumbers had also reached the Middle East by this time, and the Old Testament relates that, when the Israelites escaped from Egypt, among the things they lamented leaving behind were cucumbers (along with melons, leeks, onions, and garlic).
Though the cucumber took a while to get popular in northern Europe, it was a hit in ancient Rome. In all fairness, cucumbers wouldn’t be all that easy to grow in harsher climates, and even the Romans had to work at growing them. The Emperor Tiberius planted cucumbers in carts and had his slaves wheel the carts around to keep the vines in the sun.
Cucumbers finally began to appear in France and England in the 14th century. They reached the Americas almost as soon as Europeans did. (Actually, Germany appears not to have adopted the cucumber until the 16th century, so cucumbers may have reached the New World before they were available in Germany.) Most of the early explorers, especially the Spanish, came from warmer, Mediterranean areas, where cucumbers had spread during Roman times, and conquistadors and colonists carried cucumbers with them to the New World, where they quickly became popular. In fact, cucumbers were adopted so eagerly by the Pueblo Indians that some early researchers assumed they were indigenous.
Cucumbers are idiomatically associated with coolness. However, “cool as a cucumber” is not simply metaphorical. Growing in a field on a hot summer day, the interior flesh of a cucumber is about 20 degrees F cooler than the outside air temperature. In fact, its cool, crisp demeanor is the cucumber’s chief virtue; it has relatively little nutritional value (but it also has almost no calories, being about 95 percent water). Perhaps it is this lack of nutritional value that led Dr. Samuel Johnson to write that “A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.” However, despite the good doctor’s lack of regard, the cucumber has never lost its popularity. It is grown worldwide, and in the United States, it is a major cash crop.
The recipe below is Bulgarian. The cucumber is combined with another appropriately ancient ingredient: walnuts are the oldest cultivated nuts. And yogurt is so quintessentially Bulgarian that you can see it in the name of one of the bacteria that produces yogurt: Lactobacillus bulgaricus. So this dish, or some version of it, goes back a few years.
Tarator is served chilled, and it is a lovely summer soup. Enjoy.
(Bulgarian Cucumber and Yogurt Soup with Walnuts)
1-2 cloves garlic
2 cups plain yogurt
1 medium cucumber, peeled and seeded
⅓ - ½ cup walnuts, finely chopped
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. dried dill or 1 Tbs. fresh, finely chopped
2 Tbs. olive oil
½ cup cold water
Finely mince the garlic and stir into the yogurt. Cut the cucumber into ¼-inch dice and add to the yoghurt. Add walnuts, salt, and dill, and stir until thoroughly combined. Add the olive oil 1 Tbs. at a time, stirring until well blended. Finally, stir in the cold water.
Refrigerate at least one hour, until thoroughly chilled and flavors have blended. Serve in chilled bowls.
The easiest way to seed a cucumber is to cut it in half lengthwise, and then run the tip of a teaspoon down the center, scooping out all the seeds.
You may want to reserve a tablespoon or so of nuts to use as garnish when serving the soup, and you can sprinkle a little extra dill on top, too.
Another version I’ve seen of this tells you to just toss everything except the walnuts in a food processor, and then stir the walnuts into the purée. I like the texture of the older, hand-cut version, but the puréed version would taste just as good. Do what is easiest for you, and enjoy.